A gem of a Conservatory

The Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum in Norwalk may have only opened for its 2016 season a few weeks ago, but its historic conservatory is already fully in bloom.

The elegant glass-domed retreat, adjacent to the library within this National Historic Landmark, offers a most inviting scene, with soaring palms surrounding a handful of petite trees dripping with fruit, vividly colorful flowers and a fanciful metal bench complete with velvet pillow and tapestry throw.

But on closer inspection, a visitor realizes it’s all created with a bit of magic — or rather silk.

Despite appearance, there are no live plants at all.

“It would be a very dangerous thing if some insect could make its way through here,” says Susan Gilgore, the executive director, as her hand sweeps toward the remainder of the mansion built by financier and railroad magnate LeGrand Lockwood between 1864 and 1868.

Indeed, combining the utmost respect for historic preservation with a desire to showcase the original splendor of one of the earliest and most significant Second Empire Style country houses in the country led to the clever reimagining of the conservatory.

A unique design in its half-domed shape and ribbed ceiling, the conservatory had been severely damaged when a tree fell on it during the 1960s.

“It was empty and there was nothing in it,” Gilgore says. “Our visitors would say, ‘Could you imagine (it) with all the plantings, what it would look like?’”

And that sparked a restoration that has been captivating visitors since its official opening last spring.

“It’s really become one of the most admired rooms in the house,” volunteer Paul Veeder adds.

With a background in architecture and historic preservation, Veeder says he met with the fire marshal — and historical commission — to get the refurbishing project under way from a very humble start.

“That bench was broken, and that was the only thing that was in there,” he says.

Veeder would, it turns out, be on hand for much more than the start, with he and his wife helping with everything from fixing the bench to cleaning the tiles to helping secure period-appropriate accents.

Most vivid are the plantings, with the museum working closely with The Silk Touch, also in Norwalk. Owner Danna DiElsi designed some of the plants that, Gilgore says, “might have been here during the Lockwood era.”

The process — and the ongoing exhibition of the conservatory — also has allowed the story of the Lockwood-Mathews mansion to be further explored, says LMMM curator Kathleen Motes Bennewitz.

Study unearthed information about gardens and plantings, visitors and staff.

“There were fruit trees and flowers and everything you needed for meals,” Bennewitz says.

Her readings, for example, also yielded lovely details about the conservatory in its prime.

“They do talk of sitting in there for morning coffee or afternoon tea,” she says.

In addition, she adds, the ahead-of-its-time conservatory design would also inspire other estates of the period.

Bennewitz also gleaned much about the estate and its workings, so now panels share not only plant identifications but also information about how the gardens were maintained throughout the Lockwood and then Mathews eras of the property. There is also a related display of historic gardening tools.

So today, whether visitors head to the mansion to see its latest exhibition — “Demolish or Preserve: The 1960s at the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion,” which opens May 4; or attend one of the museum’s special events during this, its 50th anniversary year, they will likely not only stop, but truly appreciate, the conservatory for both its beauty and history.

The Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum is at 295 West Ave. in Norwalk. For more, visit lockwoodmathewsmansion.com.

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